Barbara Kay: Harper should have gone further in niqab criticism
National Post - Wednesday March 25th, 2015
In 2007 I attended a Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) fundraiser. The keynote speaker was controversial journalist Yvonne Ridley, a British convert to an aggressive form of Islam who is an open advocate for terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah. She publicly sympathized with Shamil Basayev, the Chechen mastermind of the 2002 Moscow theatre hostage disaster and the 2004 Beslan school massacre as a “shaheed” (martyr). She has even defended the utility of British Muslims watching videos of Iraqi insurgents beheading hostages as a necessary counterpoint to Western media propaganda.
In supporting the feisty, free women who choose the niqab, we are abetting domestic abuse of hidden, silenced women
On that evening, where I and a few other interested observers were the only non-Muslims in a packed hall of hundreds, Ridley’s command of the podium had her audience captivated. She happened to be speaking shortly after Stephen Harper had voiced his opposition to women concealing their face when they vote, so there was something of a charged air in the room. (I gave a full account of the evening in a Sept 12, 2007 column.) One memorable moment of Ridley’s talk sprang to mind when I read academic Emmett Macfarlane’s op ed in the Mar 23 National Post, “Harper’s needless niqab fight.”
Like many commentators who support women’s right to appear masked at all times, Macfarlane considers the niqab an issue of religious freedom, and believes that, like other immigrants to Canada, the patriarchal custom will not perpetuate itself into succeeding generations of women. He writes: “a tiny minority of Muslim women in Canada choose to wear [the niqab], and it is highly unlikely their daughters will.” Macfarlane’s insouciance is worrisome. Many of the women presently wearing the niqab today in France and elsewhere are the daughters of women who did not wear the niqab – or even the hijab! What Macfarlane fails to grasp is that the niqab has become more than a religious symbol. It is frequently employed as an overtly political symbol in the West. When it is worn as a political gesture, it represents triumphalist Islam.
The niqab represents cultures in which social interaction for women is tightly constrained.
The self-dramatizing Yvonne Ridley kits herself out in an extravagant face-to-floor costume straight out of the Arabian Nights – far more elaborate and colourful than a simple chador – topped by a turban-like hijab. But her face was uncovered, as it always is. And yet she called out to the women in the audience, “Put on a niqab,” which drew a hearty round of applause. You would have to be pretty dense not to understand that she meant women to use the niqab as a political gesture in support of an aggressively anti-integrationist attitude. This is a woman, after all, who is on record counselling British Muslims “to boycott the police and refuse to co-operate with them in any way, shape or form.”
I really wish we could once and for all detach our discussion about the niqab from religious belief. If religious belief were the sole criterion for privileging behaviours that discomfort us, we would allow the open practice of polygamy. More than one religion believes polygamy is not just a right, but an obligation, many women claim to be perfectly happy to be “sister wives,” and furthermore, polygamy has a long and storied cultural history to bolster its claim for legitimacy, yet we do not sanction it because it offends our belief in gender equality. Of course polygamy is being practiced under our noses in certain quarters, but I doubt we will be inviting new citizens to take the oath surrounded by their four wives any time soon. How Macfarlane squares that logical circle I do not know.
The Prime Minister’s mistake was to confine his objections to the citizenship oath, which, only occurring once, is the least of our problems. Our problem is forced interaction – ourselves and our children, to whom we teach gender equality – with faceless people in situations we cannot avoid – schools, hospitals, airports, licence bureaus and the like – on an ongoing basis. It is not the citizenship ceremony that is the issue, it is the abrogation of the social contract that made this country a welcoming place for everyone that is the problem.
You cannot order people to be neighbourly. You cannot impose a culture of trust and openness. Our interactions with our fellow citizens are governed by feelings that bloom organically from the civic soil that nurtures them. Canadians are friendly, trusting people because our forebears created an environment in which trust and social reciprocity are rewarded. The niqab represents cultures in which social interaction for women is tightly constrained. The Prime Minister should therefore have gone further. He should have adopted the policy that will soon, thankfully, take force in Quebec, banning the niqab in all receiving and dispensing of tax-funded services. If he did, he would find widespread support for his courage in flouting political correctness in the service of the higher national cause of protected social reciprocity.
The niqab comes with heavy baggage. No country in the world where the niqab is common treats any woman or any non-Muslim as equals of Muslim men. Many women are forced to wear it, and they will not come forward to say so. So in supporting the feisty, free women who choose the niqab, we are abetting domestic abuse of hidden, silenced women.
Finally, the fact that only a small number of Muslim women in Canada choose to wear the niqab is a terrible argument for ignoring it, as Macfarlane advises. Rather, it is exactly the moment to nip the practice in the bud, at least in official transactional situations. A few women’s disappointment can be managed. But not the hostility of 10,000 women – and the men who are happy they wear it.